The average National Football League game in 1984 lasted 3 hours 9 minutes.

That means, if you're the average Washington football fan who watches all 16 Redskins regular season games, you spent 50 hours in front of the television just following the home team.

In other words, you spent the equivalent of a long work week -- or two normal work weeks, if you're with the federal government -- watching the Redskins. And that's before you count all the other televised football you digested.

Well, the NFL has decided games are too long. So it has taken several steps to shorten the games in hopes of reversing the recent ratings decline:

*Speed up spotting the ball after each of the roughly 160 plays per game, saving three to five seconds per play.

*Restart the clock immediately after yardage measurements (except on out-of-bounds plays and incomplete passes).

*Reduce team timeouts from 90 to 60 seconds after all TV timeouts have been taken in each half.

*Reduce amount of commercial stoppages from 22 to 16 per game (although the amount of commercial time will be the same).

"People were saying games are too long and there's too many commercial breaks," said Val Pinchbeck, the NFL's director of broadcasting. "Combining all those elements, we hope we can get games to right back at three hours."

In the late 1960s, before NFL teams discovered that passing is the shortest distance between two points, the average game took about 2:45.

Some people think increased penalties are the major factor in slowing the game. But the fact remains that ever since the league changed its rules to favor passing, games have grown longer because incomplete passes stop the clock more frequently and because pass plays are more likely to go out of bounds than running plays.

Keeping games under three hours seems crucial to reducing the viewer's irritation.

On "Monday Night Football," ABC is threatened with the loss of a lot of viewers when games drag on past midnight in the East.

On NBC's and CBS' Sunday doubleheaders, the three hours or under game guarantees we won't miss a play of any contest.

Because of league rules, each market must show its local team's game in its entirety. That's sensible. But if the Redskins play a 1 p.m. game that lingers past 4, the Washington viewer will miss the start of another game.

For all the talk of three-hour games and TV ratings, many network executives don't believe there's any correlation.

"I don't think length of games has anything to do with ratings," said Ted Nathanson, NBC's coordinating producer of NFL games. "The USFL has hurt us. There's a lot more college football on the day before. There's a dilution of our audience.

"Last year, we had a bunch of good games. ABC had a bunch of bad games, and it caught up to them. 'Monday Night Football' has a good schedule, and if they do well, that helps all of us. I'm very optimistic about the ratings this year."

Terry O'Neil, CBS' executive producer of NFL games, thinks the league's rating solution is not at hand.

"People blame the USFL, games that are too long, drugs, too many penalties. That's making it more complex than it is," he said. "In all the search for reasons for declining ratings, we've lost track of the essence of the NFL's appeal -- fans attach themselves to teams and live vicariously through them. The more teams that are competitive, the more fans are involved.

"When at midseason, it's evident to fans in 14 cities that they're not going to make the playoffs, that makes for declining interest at the stadiums, which hurts us because we have more blackouts."

"If we ever get back to 1981 -- a tremendously competitive season -- we'll be all right. We can't afford to have a year like we did last year. All those markets in the Midwest showed a tremendous decline in ratings except in Chicago (where the Bears won the NFC's Central handily)."

What the networks are seeking, then, is simple: three-hour games are nice, but they'll settle for exciting contests and a bunch of 8-8 teams battling for the playoffs until the last weekend.

That 8-8 ideal is what NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle calls parity. It's what lots of fans call mediocrity.

"You can call it mediocrity," O'Neil said. "I call it fan involvement down to the end of the season."